Health & Medicine

Mark Story: The toughest athlete I've ever written about, Susan Bradley-Cox, goes into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame

Susan Bradley-Cox is an 11-time world champion in the triathlon and a 12-time U.S. champ for her age group.
Susan Bradley-Cox is an 11-time world champion in the triathlon and a 12-time U.S. champ for her age group.

Occasionally, people ask who is the toughest athlete I've ever written about?

Henceforth, my answer will be Susan Bradley-Cox.

The reason is not because Lexington's Bradley-Cox, 76, took up the grueling sport of triathlon in her 40s and went on to become an 11-time world champion and 12-time U.S. champ for her age group.

Neither is it because Bradley-Cox grew up in the 1950s, before it was socially acceptable for women to compete in sports, yet still managed to carve out a substantial athletic niche.

Bradley-Cox became such a successful athlete that she will be inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame Wednesday in Louisville.

The reason, however, I believe the widowed mother of three and grandmother of three sets the standard for toughness is this:

In March of 1991, Bradley-Cox, then 53, was skiing in Vail, Colo. She took a tumble and crashed into very firm snow. The resulting pain surged through both knees, her left one especially.

As much as it hurt, Bradley-Cox chose to wait to fly home to Lexington before seeing a doctor. Three days after the accident, she was told she had ligament damage in both knees — and a broken tibia in her left leg.

Bradley-Cox chose not to let the doctors set her broken leg.

"My husband had died (three years earlier), and I didn't have health insurance," she said. "And I had an uncle who was a Christian Scientist, and maybe I have a little bit of that in me. I like my body to heal itself."

Some three months after breaking her leg, Bradley-Cox competed in a triathlon.

"I kind of shuffled through the run," she says. "I so badly wanted to go to Australia for the worlds, so I went to the nationals in Chicago. I think I came in third in my age group."

It was enough to qualify Bradley-Cox for the 1991 world championships. In Australia, she finished the "Olympics distance" course — 1,600-yard swim, 24.9 mile bike ride and 6.2 mile run — in a time of 2:27:00.

On a recently broken leg that was never set, Bradley-Cox came in second in the world among women 50-54.

"Probably a story that shouldn't be told, not something I would recommend anybody do," Bradley-Cox said. "But I didn't have health insurance. It was either (surgery) or sell my house. I opted to see if it would heal on its own."

Cheerleader to triathlete

As a girl in Paducah in the 1950s, Bradley-Cox was a bundle of kinetic energy — running, swimming, tumbling. Yet in a pre-Title IX world, there were scant opportunities for girls with a penchant for physical activity to compete in sports.

Jack and Phyllis Bradley allowed their daughter to learn to swim, water ski, do acrobatics and take dance. "I was allowed to do anything that was acceptable for young ladies to do," Bradley-Cox said. "But I was never allowed to go to a baseball park (to play ball). There were limits."

In retrospect, Bradley-Cox wishes she'd have had the chance to be a competitive swimmer in her school years. Instead, in high school and then at the University of Kentucky, she was a cheerleader.

For many women of Bradley-Cox's generation, the lack of school sports denied them any chance at athletic participation. Some 24 years after she cheered for UK as Adolph Rupp's Wildcats claimed the 1958 NCAA basketball championship in Freedom Hall, Bradley-Cox created her own sports opportunity.

After she married Bert Cox, they started a family that grew to include two sons and a daughter. Her husband, president of Midway College from 1965-77, encouraged her to lead an active life.

"He played tennis with me," Bradley-Cox said. "We played golf. We rode bikes together. ... He was the one who got me into running. He said it would help my tennis."

Joining a Lexington runners' group changed her life.

From the time he opened John's Run/Walk Shop in 1978, John Sensenig has held a prominent place in Lexington's running community. When the first triathlon held in the Bluegrass region was coming in 1982, it was natural that Sensenig was involved.

He approached Bradley-Cox, who was then 45, at a group run with the idea of her trying the triathlon.

"I knew Susan from running and I knew what a good swimmer she was," Sensenig said. "I remember saying, 'Do you ride a bike at all?'"

The first triathlon Bradley-Cox tried was held on the grounds of Spindletop Hall. Though she had long ridden bikes for fun, once the race began she realized she did not know how to shift gears.

Still, Bradley-Cox won the overall female title.

She was hooked. "I thought, 'Gosh, this is something I love,'" she said.

One Ironman

Many associate triathlons with the Ironman competition held annually in Kona, Hawaii. That event calls for a 2.4 miles swim, a 112-miles bike ride and running a marathon, 26.2 miles.

"I had no desire to do an Ironman," Bradley-Cox said. "To me, that wasn't something I wanted to do at all."

However, in 1986, Bradley-Cox completed a half-triathlon in Panama City, Fla. At age 48, she had qualified for the Ironman.

"There were only about 200 women in the whole thing," Bradley-Cox said. "I was very intimidated. I was scared to death."

Out of 1,039 competitors (men and women), Bradley-Cox finished 443rd — and second among women in her age group.

Yet she never went back.

Because she had so enjoyed competing in her first world championship in France, she made that event — at the shorter "Olympics distance" — her focus.

"I thought, 'I don't care if I ever go to another Ironman. (The World Championships) are my ticket to travel,'" Bradley-Cox said.

As a result, she has competed in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland and Portugal, among other places.

A Hall of Famer

It is only in recent years that Bradley-Cox has dialed back on doing triathlons. That is not to suggest she is slowing down.

Bradley-Cox is the head coach of the Wildcat Masters swim team at UK. She teaches water aerobics at Transylvania University. She is Lexington triathlon coach for a team sponsored by the Kentucky Leukemia/Lymphoma Society.

Said Sensenig: "She is a great role model for young women athletes."

When Bradley-Cox got the news she had been elected to the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, she felt the need to get out a dictionary.

"I looked up 'athlete,' what is an athlete?" she said. "I guess I fit the category. It's still hard for me to (think of myself that way)."

If a primary measure of a successful athlete is toughness, Susan Bradley-Cox is the epitome of the word.

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